Thursday 5 June 2008

The Gallant Hours (1960)

Obviously something close to the heart of actor and former Navy man Robert Montgomery, who produced and directed, it's a war film that really stands alone in my experience. While it really focuses on one five week stretch of time, it's a biographical portrait of Admiral Bull Halsey. It doesn't focus on battle scenes or anything else that we're used to seeing in war movies or biopics, and having seen other experiments that Montgomery put on film I'm sure a lot of this is his doing. It's memorable for a lot of different approaches taken in showing us who Halsey was.

It's slow, thoughtful and methodical but very decisive indeed and told with serious attention to detail, no doubt because the film is meant not just to tell Halsey's story but to act as a mirror to who he was. Fleet Admiral William F Halsey Jr was all of those things. Our five week period begins on 16 Oct 1942 with Halsey sent to command the Allies at Guadalcanal and he's thrown right into it. His first meeting with the men running the various strands of the operation and getting their asses royally kicked is a definitive scene. Halsey opens it up then shuts his mouth and listens. I remember advice my father gave me that I've tried to follow over the years: keep your mouth shut until you know what's going on and then choose your words carefully. Halsey seemed to follow these rules before my dad ever did.

The details are thrown at us via narration. The narrator, mostly Montgomery himself, introduces all the many characters with their names, in military detail, and certain facts or background information that help us to know a little about them before we hear what they have to say. In effect this enables us to see who these people are, given that we see them in such sheer numbers that the actors rarely have any chance at an opportunity to show us themselves. The narrator also often tells us not just where characters came from but where they're going to, much in the way Tom Tykwer would later turn into visuals in Run Lola Run.

The music is far from traditional too, being primarily choral music put together by Roger Wagner and sung by the Roger Wagner Chorale and it helps underpin this film admirably and endow it with a sombre tone that is very fitting. This is far from a traditional film and far from the standard sort of feelgood film, though there's much to inspire. This focus on reality and detail is only part of the picture. Part of it is the treatment of the enemy without prejudice or fake deference. The Japanese are soldiers: some bad, some good, some very good, but they're soldiers, not fearless samurai warriors and not dirty japs. They're also played by Japanese actors who speak Japanese, without subtitles. The narration tells us their stories.

Another part is the fact that Halsey is played by James Cagney. While he apparently found this the hardest role he ever played, mostly because the real Halsey had no distinctive mannerisms for him to copy, he underacted his way to a very subtle and powerful performance. I'm a big Cagney fan and this makes 50 of his films for me or 76%. I'm used to him being dynamic, which he was from moment one in Sinner's Holiday and especially moment two in The Doorway to Hell, when he stole the show out from under Lew Ayres and paved the way for The Public Enemy and the rest. His challenge here was to be dynamic but do so quietly, using his substantial inner power but nothing more obvious. It's a heck of a challenge and to my mind, he succeeds magnificently, working mostly with breathing and eye movement. The film backs him up all the way, being primarily a glimpse into the inner power of Bull Halsey with war background.

Other cast members, beyond the presence only visible in the credits of James Cagney Jr and Robert Montgomery Jr, include a number of powerful actors. There's a memorable Dennis Weaver, in his first film after Touch of Evil. There's Ward Costello, who would later appear again next to an actor playing Admiral Halsey in Tora! Tora! Tora! There's Vaughn Taylor, best known as Janet Leigh's boss in Psycho but who debuted in an early Cagney picture called Picture Snatcher. He was an extra then and I wonder what he felt like appearing in a major role with Cagney 27 years later. There's also Richard Jaeckel, Karl Swenson, Carleton Young and others, and without any standard battle scenes provide one of the tensest, most gripping war films I've ever seen.

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